Ancient Corinth was an extravagant pagan city, steeped in a customs and traditions that were quite foreign to the ethics of Torah. Shaul (Paul) struggled to teach his Jesus-following Corinthians a new way of life in a city that beckoned them to idolatry. Paul states, “An idol is nothing in the world and there is no God but one” (1 Cor 8:4). But this Jewish aversion towards idols did not always make sense in a Gentile environment.
Like Paul, the rabbis were also concerned with how Jews should act among idols. Rabban Gamaliel was once asked why he used a bathhouse that contained images of the goddess Aphrodite, despite the Torah’s prohibition against idols (see Deuteronomy 13). Gamaliel explained that there is a difference between a public bathhouse that is embellished with images and a house of Aphrodite outfitted with baths. Insofar as the rabbi needed to bathe, and the bathhouses were constructed by pagan Romans, Gamaliel says of the idol, “I did not come into her domain, rather she came into mine” (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 44b). Since Gamaliel was not actively worshiping such idols, but merely taking a bath amidst what he saw as worthless and powerless decorations, he deemed it acceptable to utilize the Roman establishment.
Since, according to Paul, idols have no real power, some interpreters read Paul’s teaching as excusing the practice of eating food at pagan temples. Paul states, “Not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” (1 Co 8:7–8 NASB). The imagined scenario is that the strong believers ate food at pagan temples and did not sin before God. But for the weak in their faith, such food would be defiling. Paul entertains this scenario without validating it, since he knew that Gentiles should “abstain from things contaminated by idols” (Acts 15:20 NASB). Indeed, he personally spread these very Jewish rules in pagan cities (Acts 15:22), so why would he not hold to this anti-idol stipulation in his discourse with the Corinthians?
Paul was answering a hypothetical theological question in First Corinthians: “If idols are not real, then why can’t we eat food sacrificed to them?” Jews knew that association with idols would send a message that contradicted Israel’s faith in the one God, but the Gentile Corinthians were yet to understand this idea. Paul’s advises his congregants that, although idols are powerless, one should avoid eating idol-associated meat in order to ensure that no one stumbles in his or her faith (see 1 Cor 8:13). Paul was not endorsing the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols; rather, he was following a Jewish ethical framework that emphasized modeling behaviors that would promote the God of Israel to the benefit of the Jesus-believing community.